It is time to jump aboard skills train
It was fitting that a new cross-border initiative aimed at highlighting the need to develop skills that meet the demands of modern businesses should take place in Derry.
Nowhere is better placed, with an economic corridor developing between the city and Letterkenny, and very close links being created between third level educational establishments on either side of the border.
Even now — maybe especially now — with the western world's economies in recession or on the brink of toppling into negative growth, it is crucial to develop skills that will strengthen companies, or prove attractive to inward investors.
Derry's hopes of becoming a mini financial centre of excellence have been hit hard by the current chaos in the markets, but preparations must still be made because, even in the worst case scenario, economies will turn round again within several years.
Amid the gloom of the present, a brighter future is looming for the North West, because of plans in the pipeline that will transform the region. It's only a question of timing, thanks mainly to exciting proposals for the development of Ebrington barracks and Fort George. To succeed, these huge developments — accounting for more than 40 acres — will require skilled, 21st century workforces.
But that's not the only bright light in the darkness. Although less well-known than Ilex's plans for the vacated military sites in Derry, another development offers huge possibilities.
The Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment and the Republic's Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (MCENR) are working together to bring about a direct telecommunications submarine cable connection from a new or existing North American submarine cable to the North West region of Ireland.
Derry is the favoured landing point and there will be subsequent terrestrial connections to Letterkenny and Monaghan and tenders will go out for the provision of telecommunications services over these connections.
DETI will be the prime contracting authority with the successful service provider, on behalf of itself and the MCENR. Project Kelvin, as it is known, has a maximum budget of €30m — around £23.7m. Derry is slowly but surely securing the infrastructure that will bring major success.
But if we don't develop the right skills, we will not so much be looking an economic gifthorse in the mouth as hitting it a hard slap on the face. After so many decades of frustration, being under-developed, under-resourced and under-appreciated, we dare not let such opportunities go by default.
No one individual has tried harder to ram home the message than Seagate Derry's vice president, John Spangler, who was a key speaker at last week's conference at the Millennium Forum — the first collaborative event organised by the Northern Ireland Skills Expert Group and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.
The conference, entitled Building Better Skills Together, was jointly opened by the Employment and Learning Minister, Sir Reg Empey, and the Republic’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Tanaiste Mary Couglan.
Among the issues highlighted was the importance of creating a suitably skilled workforce, tailored to the needs of employers, along with the many benefits of collaborating on an all-island basis.
If we are to create a truly modern local economy with high value jobs, time is of the essence.
But employers have their part to play, and those who have already prepared themselves will no doubt fare better in these turbulent times.
Those who have ignored the calls of Mr Spangler and the North West Workforce Development Forum are taking a risk.
While the moves being made by the two governments apply to all parts of Ireland, they will be most welcome in the North West.
This region has a good base to start from — it has one of the highest numbers of young people coming through in the UK, a cross-border location which doubles our access to labour, and top quality third level education providers.
With the latest developments, the ingredients for success are there. Just one key thing is missing — the willingness of all employers to commit to making sure their workers get opportunities to upskill. Those who have not got on board what Mr Spangler has called the “skills train”, are those who will be left trailing far behind when it arrives at its destination.
But we would all be better off if everyone was travelling in the same direction.